Steven Engler



1700s:  The Central African practice of calundu-angola was recorded in Brazil.

1849 (November 14):  The Fox sisters held the first public demonstration of Spiritual practices in Rochester, New York.

1857:  Allan Kardec published Le Livre des Esprits (The Spirits Book) in Paris.

1860s:  Kardecist Spiritism was established in Brazil.

1908 (November 15):  Caboclo das Sete Encruzilhadas (Caboclo Seven Crossroads) is believed to have been incorporated in seventeen-year-old Zélio Fernandino de Moraes.

1920s (late):  Organized groups identifying themselves as “Umbanda” appeared.

1939:  The Federação Espírita de Umbanda do Brasil [Brazilian Spiritist Umbanda Federation] was founded.

1941:  The First Brazilian Conference of Spiritism and Umbanda was held.

1960s (late):  There was a peak period of founding of new Umbandist groups in São Paulo.

2003:  The Faculdade de Teologia Umbandista [University of Umbandist Theology] was founded in São Paulo.


The origin of Umbanda is disputed. Both scholars and Umbandists present varying accounts that emphasize one or both of two traditions that Umbanda resembles in doctrine and practice: Spiritism (Kardecism and western esoteric currents more broadly) and Afro-Brazilian traditions (Candomblé and Macumba).

A first insider account converges in part with some scholarly views: Umbanda emerged from earlier traditions brought by enslaved Central Africans. Some Umbandists hold that Umbanda emerged from African practices: e.g., it literally grew from a powerful root planted by an enslaved Angolan sorcerer (Hale 2009:228). Arthur Ramos, writing in 1934, was the first scholar to draw attention to “Umbanda,” and he presented it as a Central African transplant (2001:97-98). He equated “Umbanda” with “Macumba” and pointed to the cabula, a Central African ritual for communing with departed ancestors (2001:103, 99). Bastide later echoed the view that Umbanda emerged from Macumba (1995:447). “Macumba” refers not to a religion but to a range of popular Afro-Brazilian rituals (often labelled “black magic”) that aim at healing and worldly benefits. From the nineteenth century, it was equated with “low spiritism” in contrast to upper-class Kardecism or “high spiritism.” Some groups, primarily in Rio de Janeiro, do use the term to describe themselves, but scholars suggest that “from obscure origins the term “macumba” came to designate that set of spirits, practices, and religious goals classified as illegitimate by a diverse set of actors in the struggle to assert the legitimacy of their own set of spirits, practices, and religious goals” (Hayes 2007: 287; see Brown 1994:25–36). To say that Umbanda emerged from Macumba thus points vaguely to an Afro-Brazilian origin with no further specification. Some scholars suggest that Umbanda grew out of a specific African tradition in Brazil, the eighteenth-century calundu-angola (Rohde 2009; Malandrino 2010:173, 223-30; see Mott 1994). The calundus were rituals of dance leading to the incorporation of spirits (Calainho 2008:90-91). However, in the case of both cabula and calundus, there is no historical evidence of continuity or direct influences on Umbanda, only certain similarities in ritual form. If we start from the assumption that Umbanda has a primarily African origin, then it makes sense to look here for its roots. If we discount that assumption (pointing instead to Kardecist roots) it is easy to discount these comparable rituals. (Leal de Souza, in a collection of newspaper reports published in 1933, presented “the White Line of Umbanda” as a subset of Spiritism, along with Kardecism [1933].) Historian Laura de Mello e Souza (who had argued that Umbanda was rooted in the calundus (1986:355)) later concluded, “I no longer believe that the end of the line explains the genesis of the process, i.e., that there is a coherent nexus between … Umbanda and Calundu-angola (2002). In sum, there is not sufficient historical evidence to conclude that Umbanda was, or was not, primarily African in its origin.

A second insider origin story emphasizes Umbanda’s relation to Kardecism. In this account, the religion was founded by a powerful indigenous spirit who incorporated in a young medium in 1908 (Brown 1985:9-12; Brown 1995:38-41; Hale 2009:227). In November of that year (in the city of Niteroi, across the bay from Rio de Janeiro) seventeen-year-old Zélio Fernandino de Moraes was mysteriously cured of a paralyzing illness. Acquaintances attributed the healing to the work of spirits. On November 15, his parents took him to attend the rituals at a center of Kardecist Spiritism. During the ritual, a very powerful indigenous spirit incorporated in de Moraes, Caboclo Seven Crossroads (Caboclo das Sete Encruzilhadas): “Immediately, several spirits of indigenous and African origin manifested themselves in other mediums. But they were rebuked by the leaders of the session, because they were considered backward and ignorant spirits” (Casa de Pai Benedito n.d.). Caboclo Seven Crossroads defended the presence of these unusual spirits. Under that spirit’s guidance, de Moraes then founded the first Umbanda center: the Tenda Espírita Nossa Senhora da Piedade [Our Lady of Mercy Spiritist Tent]. November 15 is celebrated by many Umbandists as the date of the founding of their religion. There is no independent evidence for this origin story, however, and not all Umbandists accept it. Emerson Giumbelli (2002) argues that it was consolidated only in the 1960s and 1970s. This is also the period in which the 1908-origin story was first noted by scholars. There are two key points to note about this first account of Umbanda’s origins: it holds that the religion emerged as an offshoot of Kardecism; and it rightly emphasizes that Umbanda is characterized by the incorporation of indigenous and African spirits, which were rejected by mainstream Kardecism (which remains the case to this day, for the most part).

A third insider view of Umbanda’s origin is esoteric and perennialist: Umbanda is an ancient tradition, perhaps the oldest in the world, passed down through a chain of teachers and initiates over the ages (on perennialist tradition see Hanegraaf 2005). As Umbanda developed in the 1940s and 1950s, Umbandists pointed to a range of origins beyond African traditions and European Kardecism: indigenous (primarily Guarani), Vedic, Egyptian, Lemurian, extraterrestrial etc. (Bastide 1995:445-47; Oliveira 2008:114-19; Cumino 2010:33-79, 204-07). Presenters at the First Brazilian Conference of Spiritism and Umbanda, in 1941, held that Umbanda has been “on Earth for more than one-hundred centuries, with roots lost in the unfathomable past of the most ancient philosophies”; it has its roots in “the Upanishads,” “the lost continent of Lemuria,” “Egypt,” “Lao Tzu, Confucious [sic], Buddha … Vedanta, Patanjali … Greece, Krishna, Pythagoras, Socrates, Jesus … Moses… China, Tibet and India … Orpheus” (Cumino 2010:204-10). Bastide saw this as a denial of African roots: it expressed “the will to deny the paternity of Umbanda to Africa – to make the slaves brought to Brazil no more than a link in an initiatic chain that stretches much farther back” (1995:446). During this period, Afro-Brazilian religions were persecuted. Given its upper-class links, Kardecism was not. Some Umbandists sought to escape persecution by downplaying African roots and emphasizing Kardecist/esoteric ones (Oliveira 2007; see Engler 2016:214; Engler and Isaia 2016:195). More recent esoteric Umbandists (or rather certain spirits that incorporate in Umbandist mediums) continue to emphasize Lemurian or extra-terrestrial origins, or that Umbanda is the eternal law of the universe, older than this planet, which like all worlds is created and undergoes its own process of spiritual evolution (Trindade 1991; Hale 2009:228-29; Scarabelo 2009:135-37). From a scholarly perspective, esoteric views of Umbanda’s beginning can be interpreted as either consistent with a Kardecist origin or as an attempt to deny an African origin.

The most prominent scholarly account is that Umbanda emerged in the 1920s in the large cities of southern Brazil (Rio de Janeiro and to a lesser extent São Paulo and Porto Alegre) and that this development reflected processes of urbanization and immigration (Ortiz 1999:42-43; Brown 1994:37-46; Negrão 1996:65, 67). In this view, race was central to Umbanda’s formation. On the one hand, as some Kardecists sought more stimulating rituals, their groups went through a process of empretecimento (blackening). Brown for example, suggests that the origin of Umbanda is to be found with “dissatisfied Kardecists, who … came to prefer the African and indigenous divinities present in ‘macumba’” (1985:11). On the other hand, as more European immigrants became interested in Candomblé and other Afro-Brazilian traditions, some groups went through a symmetrically opposed process of embranquecimento (whitening), resulting in more familiar and/or acceptable rituals. Bastide, for example, argues that Kardecism provided a useful model for groups that sought to distance themselves from Macumba (1995:447). Other scholars suggest that Umbanda emerged through both these process but also through the admixture of indigenous and even Islamic elements (also brought by slaves) (Nogueira 2007). Though this sort of account is satisfying for those trained in the human and social sciences, it also lacks clear historical support. There is little evidence, beyond the stories of Zélio de Moraes and his followers, to prove that any particular Kardecists or Candomblecists were actually motivated by the desire for more or less energetic or African rituals.

The question of Umbanda’s origin remains open. The very lack of clarity undermines the common view that Umbanda is best classified as an “Afro-Brazilian” religion. That might or might not be the case, depending on how central Kardecism is to its origin, development and current situation. But the picture is far from clear. Duglas Teixeira Monteiro is almost alone in having insisted that “Umbanda derives from Kardecism, but it adopted numerous rites from other religions already existing in Brazil” (1977:67). Kardecism is prominent in most of the above origin stories. Perhaps it would be better to categorize Umbanda as a hybrid Afro-esoteric Brazilian tradition. The “Brazilian” is important. Renato Ortiz wrote that “Umbanda is not a black religion; … it is opposed to Candomblé”: “If ‘Candomblé’ and ‘Macumba’ are African religions, the Spiritism of Umbanda is, on the contrary, a— I would say the— national religion of Brazil” (1977:43; 1999:96, original emphasis).

Given the lack of clarity, what might explain the intense focus by both insiders and scholars to defend different views of the religion’s “true” origin? It is clear that the religion has had a wide variety of forms for as long as firm evidence exists, ranging broadly from Kardecism-like to Candomblé-like. It seems that those who see the religion as Afro-Brazilian emphasize one sort of origin story; those who practice more esoteric forms prefer another; and scholars have preferred one view or another in ways that can be correlated with ideological positions (e.g., defending accounts that emphasize a positive view of racial mixture in Brazil, that valorize Afro-Brazilian culture, or that fit with certain modernization theories).

Perhaps the issue of origins is a red herring. Once we let go of the quest for origins, we can focus directly on Umbanda’s flexibility and variation. As Maria Laura Cavalcanti notes in an article titled “Origins, why do I want them?” the search for Umbanda’s root(s) obscures its “specific nature, in which heterogeneity and fluidity are distinguishing characteristics” (Cavalcanti 1986:100).

In sum, Umbanda is a disparate religion, with no agreed-upon origin, no unified institutional structure, and with a wide range of variation in beliefs and practices. Throughout the history of the religion, the majority of members have belonged to independent houses, centers or terreiros, led by individual pais or mães de santo (saint fathers or mothers). The formation of federations and associations has been only a minority development with little broad impact. Divisions and schisms have been common, and the religion’s tendency to hybridize with other new religious movements has resulted in further variation.


Umbanda is a religion with great internal variety: “There is not one Umbanda but many Umbandas with a great diversity in beliefs and rituals” (Motta 2006:25; original emphasis). The main way that Umbanda groups vary is from Candomblé-like terreiros (grounds) to Kardecism-like centros (centers): “beliefs and practices … show considerable variation, tending toward a greater resemblance to one of the other of the poles formed by its two main parent traditions” (Brown 1979:277). Groups at the Kardecist end of the spectrum are called mesa branca (white table) or Umbanda branca (White Umbanda), where “white” refers primarily to the table coverings traditionally used in Kardecist rituals. Another important but understudied variant consists of groups characterized by western esoteric influences (Engler forthcoming). Umbanda varies considerably from one region to another within Brazil. In addition, it has influenced and hybridized with some Afro-Brazilian religions (e.g., Jurema and Tambor de Mina) (Engler and Brito 2016); it hybridizes with other religions (e.g., Santo Daime) (Dawson 2012); and it has played a key role in the emergence of other new religious movements (e.g., Vale do Amanhecer) (Pierini 2016; Siqueira 2016). It has spread to neighboring countries, especially Uruguay and Argentina, and groups are found in many other countries due to Brazilian emigration (Frigerio 2013; Meintel and Hernandez 2013; Saraiva 2016).

Umbanda’s core theology is Kardecist. God created all spirits equal, but undeveloped, and their natural goal is to return to Him through the tests of multiple incarnations in this world (and sometimes others). Some spirits have advanced to the point where they no longer need to incarnate; but their spiritual advancement manifests itself in a great desire to help their less advanced incarnate fellow spirits (i.e., human beings alive in this world). Jesus is an extremely advanced spirit who, in an act of charity, became incarnate to help others,  though he was sufficiently evolved spiritually to have no need of doing so. The main venue for spirits’ acts of charity is Umbandist sessions: they incorporate in mediums and offer advice, in one-on-one consultations, and provide ritual healing services.

There are two main types of spirits in Umbanda: guides who perform acts of charity, and guardians who keep dangerous forces (especially other, malevolent, spirits) at bay. The most common guides or “saints” are caboclos (strong-willed, forceful, well-intentioned, healing, indigenous spirits) and pretos velhos [Image at right] (calm, humble, christianized, and Afro-descendent former slaves, partially incorporated in the colonizers’ culture). Others include baianos (spirits from the state of Bahia), boiadeiros (“cowboys”: hybrid indigenous/white spirits), crianças (children: innocent, playful spirits), marinheiros (sailors: womanizers and drinkers who bring messages of love and faith), malandros (rogues, womanizers, drinkers, gamblers, led by the infamous Zé Pilintra spirit-type, a trickster figure prominent in the indigenous-influenced religion of Jurema), eguns (ancestral spirits), ciganos (gypsies: happy, disorderly spirits, known for their work with crystals in esoteric groups) and sereias (mermaids) (Concone 2001; Silva 2005:118-25; Barros 2011). Two other important types of spirits incorporate less commonly in Umbanda: exus, a powerful male trickster figure; [Image at right] and pombas giras, a female spirit with a sexualized moral ambivalence (Silva 2015; Hayes 2011). These types of spirits are central in the related “black-magic” or “left-hand” religion of Quimbanda. As guardian spirits, exus incorporate in some centers of Umbanda in monthly or yearly closed sessions to cleanse and protect the ritual space. Centros/terreiros generally devote the rituals of a given day of the week or month to the incorporation of a given spirit (e.g., all mediums receiving “their” caboclo on Tuesdays). Crianças (child-spirits) incorporate during the late-September Feast of Saints Cosmas and Damian, when children from the community are welcome to come and eat candy and drink soda pop with these spirits.

Orixás are important, but they are powerful guardian spirits, not deities like the orixás, voduns and inquices of Candomblé. They are highly evolved entities who have never (or only exceptionally, as in the case of Jesus/Oxalá) been embodied/incarnate (a divergence from the more universal Kardecist emphasis that all spirits are equal in  creation and path, just not in their timing on that path). The orixás seldom incorporate during rituals, never in many centros/terreiros. Some umbandistas refer to their guides as “orixás.” The most important of the orixás head up the “seven lines” (or “vibrations”) under which all spirits are organized. Experienced mediums often work with at least one spirit from each of the seven lines. Lists of Umbanda’s seven lines vary, but the first line is invariably that of Oxalá (Jesus), with the line of Iemanjá [Image at right] most often second (associated with the sea, as in Candomblé, and sometimes with the Virgin Mary). The key point to note is that there is no essential difference between most spirits and “normal” human beings: all were created equal by God, with differences reflecting distinct trajectories of spiritual evolution.


The main rituals are public gatherings in which the spirits incorporate in mediums and offer consultations and religious services to the (mainly Catholic) clients who form the attending public or “assistance” (Engler 2016). Additional rituals include a complex range of offerings, purifications, healings, initiations, laying on of hands, preparation of herbs, prayers, wardings, blessings of articles of clothing etc., all of which vary greatly between centros/terreiros. Important Umbandist rituals in honor of Iemanjá are performed on ocean beaches and riverbanks during the summer, on dates that vary by region.

The heart of the ritual space is an area at the front where the spirits incorporate and consultations are held. [Image at right] Spirits have three main roles in Umbanda: giving “assistance” to the clients; performing physical or spiritual healings; and protecting clients from, or undoing the effects of, black magic, often believed to be the result of Quimbanda rituals. Clients sit facing the main ritual space as they wait their turns to speak with the spirits. The seating area is generally separated from the ritual space by a low wall. The main ritual space generally has an altar with flowers, candles, food offerings, and statues representing a range of spirits. [Image at right]

Drummers stand on a raised platform to one side, though esoteric centros often have no drumming. Ritual assistants called cambones (often apprentice mediums, who do not generally incorporate spirits during the session) assist the spirits with their work. Mediums often wear guias de proteção (protecting necklaces) composed of seeds, shells, crystals, wood and thread/beads of colours associated with the spirits that they work with. Payment by clients is rare at the Kardecist end of the spectrum of Umbandas; offerings of materials for the spirits and sometime for animal sacrifices are present at the Afro-Brazilian end of that spectrum (Brumana and Martinez 1989:214–16). (Cash payments for consultations and ritual services are common in Quimbanda.) After an initial blessing by the spirit, the ritual conversations generally resemble a medical or psychological consultation, with the spirit listening, then offering advice, occasionally giving instructions for a ritual to be performed at home (e.g., lighting a candle near running water) and, in serious cases, perhaps giving instruction to return for more aggressive spiritual therapy. The core ritual of consultation with the spirits is found in most but not all groups. Many Umbanda centers have one or more rooms “off-stage” in which therapies are performed, ranging from psychic surgery (contact and non-contact) to crystal- and aroma-therapy in esoteric centers.


The organization of mediums ranges from an informal hierarchy of expertise/experience under the Mãe/Pai de Santo (the leader, often founder, of a given centro/terreiro) to a rigid set of levels. Struggles between institutional and charismatic modes of authority can exist within a given group, characterized by Yvonne Maggie as a tension between “the code of the santo” and “the bureaucratic code” (2001). Schisms are common, with advanced mediums striking off on their own to form new centers/terreiros.

A number of federations and associations have been established. The first to be founded was the Federação Espírita de Umbanda do Brasil [Brazilian Spiritist Umbanda Federation] in 1939, and it is still active. A first national congress was held in 1941. These early attempts to impose unity on the religion occurred during a time of religious persecution of Afro-Brazilian traditions, and arguably played a central role in framing Umbanda as less African: “at the moment of their search for an initial normalization, the leadership found support in Christianity and in Kardecism. But that does not mean that Africa disappeared. It remains in words and practices” (Giumbelli 2010:115). Wikipedia lists almost fifty federations and associations, many “Afro-

Brazilian,” including Candomblé and other African-rooted traditions (“Federações” n.d.). An accredited post-secondary institution (the Faculdade de Teologia Umbandista (F.T.U.)) was established in São Paulo in 2003. Umbandist leaders Alexandre Cumino and Rodrigo Queiroz are featured in a series of courses, on-line since 2006 and linked to the Umbanda Sagrada movement of Rubens Seraceni (Umbanda EAD n.d.).

Attempts to institutionalize Umbanda have resulted in a greater degree of doctrinal, ritual and organization uniformity among participating groups, but the majority of terreiros and centros have no formal affiliations and vary widely in belief, practice, and organization. Writing in 1961, Cândido P.F. de Camargo wrote that institutional attempts to unify Umbanda were “weak, if not negative” (Camargo 1961:53, see 33; see Brown 1977:38-39). Writing in 1979, Lisias Nogueira Negrão concluded that federations in the city of São Paulo had made progress only in terms of limited institutional unification, not in imposing ritual and doctrinal norms (Negrão 1979:178; see Birman 1985:96-106). Umbanda remains a disparate religion, with no centralized institutional structure, and with a bewildering variety of beliefs and practices.

Mediums learn through apprenticeship and, in white and esoteric Umbanda, through textual study. Mediumistic talents are often first recognized by spirits when a person visits a centro/terreiro. Many people see, feel or heard spirits out of the blue, during a period of illness or after the death of a loved one. This is diagnosed as a talent for mediunidade, and these individuals often become mediums as a means of living in balance with these presences. Ignoring or resisting the call of mediunidade is seen as a significant cause of illness and psychological problems (Montero 1985).


Umbanda appears to be in decline. Comparing those who self-identify as members in the Brazilian national census, Umbanda is still more than twice as large as Candomblé and all other Afro-Brazilian religions taken together. But the number of members, as a proportion of the national population, dropped by almost a quarter in the twenty-year period from 1991 to 2010, where the number of members of Candomblé and other Afro-Brazilian religions increased by almost seventy percent during that same period (Prandi 2013:209).

These numbers are misleading, in part because popular and especially Evangelical prejudice against Afro-Brazilian religions leads some people to hide their involvement. More importantly, millions of non-members, primarily self-identified “Catholics,” attend Umbanda rituals regularly for spiritual healing services (Camargo 1961:99–110; Montero 1985; Oro 1988).

The most significant problem faced by Umbanda over the last decades is religious intolerance (Birman 1997; Silva 2007). [Image at right] Umbanda (along with Candomblé, Quimbanda and “Macumba”) is a target of verbal attacks, primarily from Neo-Pentecostal leaders, and acts of violence, primarily the depredation of ritual spaces. Since the 1960s, Neo-Pentecostal pastors have insisted that these religions manifest “a malignant and diabolical power in action”; they are “demonic cult[s]”; “all people who reject the saving grace of Our Lord Jesus Christ are easy prey for the works of Macumba” (McAlister 1983:93; Soares 1993:27; Macedo 2001:96). The most prominent case, is that of the Igreja Universal do Reino de Deus (Universal Church of the Kingdom of God – UC) (Almeida 2009; Engler 2011). Direct theological and ritual confrontation with the spirits of Afro-Brazilian religions is central to the UC’s conception of salvation:

“demons ‘cause’ disease, adultery, homosexuality and all other harms in life. This … explains, in an exhaustive manner, misery and poverty, sickness and pain, family and social conflicts, in sum, everything that leads us to characterize life as something bad” (Gomes 1996: 236).

In the words of the UC’s co-founder and leader, Edir Macedo,

demons “constantly possess those without the protection of God,” and they are able to do so, in large part, due to their prominence in other religions, “from the most primitive African sects to the salons of modern society … [,] in eastern religions and in those western ones linked to occultism. They continually try to penetrate even into Christian religions, where they have achieved some success” (Macedo 2001:19, 25).

Exorcism is seen as an accessible and repeatable technique for dealing with life’s problems: “These demons become maladies that, once they have been named by their victims, can be exorcised away” (De Temple 2005:221). Demons are called upon by name and interviewed by microphone-wielding pastors on stage as part of “unloading sessions,” but these are the very same spirits that incorporate in Afro-Brazilian religions, especially Umbanda and Quimbanda. According to the UC doctrine (supported by the statements of demons interviewed during exorcism rituals) the two main causes of possession are direct participation in Afro-Brazilian rituals and “works” in those religions, cursing rituals paid for by envious or malevolent people. Currently, the intersection between Pentecostalism and criminal gangs is leading to a new wave of violence against Umbanda and Afro-Brazilian traditions (Muggah 2017).

Image #1: Image of a preto velho spirit. Accessed from
Image #2: An image of Exu Tranca Ruas (“Locker of Streets”). Subordinate to Ogum, this Exu opens and blocks paths and opportunities. Accessed from
Image #3: Image of an orixá Iemanja incorporated in an Umbandist medium.Accessed from
Image #4: Photograph of Umbandist ritual space. The low wall separates the main ritual space, where the altar is located, and the seating space for clients, where the photograph was taken from. Accessed from
Image #5: An Umbanda altar, with images of Jesus, Mary, caboclos and Catholic saints. Accessed from
Image #6: Photograph of a multi-religious event speaking out against religious intolerance in Brazil (January 2015), including representatives of Afro-Brazilian religions. Accessed from


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Post Date:

17 January 2018


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